Deep in the Cumberland Forest in Morgan County, there's an acre of land tucked away in the hills and concealed by a large wooden privacy fence. This isolated spot in the woods is where they hide the bodies.
In this case, "they" refers to the instructors at the UT National Forensic Academy. The new location in Morgan County allows the academy to bury bodies and provide homicide investigators from across the country some of the best training in the world at finding hidden graves.
"At this site, we're teaching law enforcement how to find a clandestine grave. They do probing and troweling to see what type of disturbance is there. And then they'll do soil tests and do some excavations and hone in on graves," said forensic anthropologist Murray Marks. "This facility is an incredible resource."
The academy has done this type of training for years at other locations, including the UT Arboretum in Oak Ridge and the "body farm" in Knoxville. This is the first time they've trained at the property in Morgan County, which will provide the academy with a more spacious place of its own where full flesh-and-bone are allowed.
"We can now control the schedule for ourselves to put on the courses we need to with the officers," said Dan Anselment with the UT National Forensic Academy. "We have a wait-list until 2018 for officers to come here to East Tennessee for a 10-week course. That's a major commitment on their part and their agencies, so we always want to make sure they get the best training possible."
The "body farm" location beside UT Medical Center is a busy research site where decomposing bodies have been studied for close to 30 years, so there were limitations with scheduling, space, and unspoiled soil to train law enforcement.
The arboretum in Oak Ridge provided greater flexibility in terms of scheduling and space, but only permitted the use of bones. The academy could not use cadavers or soft tissue inside the city limits to train officers.
The new forensic training site in Morgan County provides more space and is finalizing permission to use cadavers. The use of soft tissue is important to train law enforcement how to identify changes in soil, vegetation, and other features common when a body decomposes beneath the ground.
"Having another place to study that soft tissue decomposition is really valuable," said Marks.
"It's really important that law enforcement gets the proper training and that we're able to do it in facilities like this property here in Morgan County," said Anselment.
The isolated location and larger acreage is also much more like the types of places a killer would attempt to hide any proof of a crime.
"You look out and it is forest and you try to decide where to even begin. With the vegetation here and because this is virgin soil, it's going to present a greater challenge for law enforcement to locate a clandestine grave in this facility," said Anselment.
"What we do is spend some time in the classroom going over how to find clandestine graves. Then we give the officers a tip from a source, which is usually how investigators get a general idea of where bodies are hidden in reality. Then they have to determine a strategy for how to locate the grave," said Marks.
Finding the grave is just the beginning. The course trains students how to preserve an entire crime scene as well as the art of digging up bones without damaging evidence.
"A lot of times with a clandestine grave, there's other evidence that could be there. There could be shell casings. There could be actual bullets within the bone. There could be tools or weapons that had something to do with that homicide," said Marks. "It's about securing and preserving that scene and excavating the evidence to get it in the hands of the experts."
"It presents a more realistic environment of what they're going to experience," said Anselment. "If law enforcement can accurately do what they need to do because of these training facilities, we're better able to serve families who want answers about what happened to their loved one."
Marks echoed the sentiment that the new site was more than a place for scientific games of hide and go seek. Officers ultimately learn how to help others find closure.
"The victim is gone, but there's a family out there. It allows closure for families," said Marks.
The UT National Forensic Academy worked out a deal in December to lease the property from the UT Ag Institute for $10,000 annually.
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